This week, another round of alternative fishing gear tests launch on the Columbia River courtesy of the Oregon and Washington fish and wildlife departments. Yep, right in the middle of the fall sport fishing season.
The idea is to try out methods of commercial fishing that are more selective than commercial gillnets – i.e. they catch hatchery fish and protect wild salmon and steelhead.
Tests fishing will be done with purse seines (like the one shown above), beach seines, trap nets, trollers and tangle nets. The basic concept is instead of pulling up a gillnet full of hatchery and wild fish – only some of which will survive if released – the fishers can keep the hatchery fish (the ones with their adipose fins clipped off) and set the wild ones free unharmed.
It sounds like a good idea, in theory, for commercial gillnetters to improve their fishing techniques to help protect threatened and endangered fish. In practice, said ODFW Columbia River fishery manager John North, it’s complicated.
Buying new equipment will cost money, getting permits to anchor nets and traps in the estuary will take time (and money), and some of the techniques being tested require additional deckhands (again, more money). Nobody’s sure how many fish the fleet could catch using these techniques – or how many fish the boats would need to catch to make it worth their while. Oh, and all the alternative methods they’re trying? Still technically illegal (the tests require a special exception).
However, last year’s tests yielded 884 salmon, only one of which died during handling.This year, tests include five purse seines, five beach seines, two trap nets (stationary, one-way entry enclosures in the river), two trollers (lots of hooks and lines) and three different types of tangle nets (that catch fish more gently by their teeth instead of by the gills).
“Our shared goal is to identify and develop commercial fishing gear capable of catching large numbers of hatchery salmon, while also allowing for the safe release of wild fish,” said Pat Frazier, regional WDFW fish manager.
Looming over this discussion is the debate over hatchery fish production, recently amplified by a National Marine Fisheries Service draft report that put hatchery funding cuts on the table.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, the hatchery fish themselves can be problematic for the wild stocks even thought they were produced to offset impacts from hydroelectric dams.
Gillnets are problematic too (see below) because a certain percentage of their catch is bound to be wild fish that will die after being caught. To limit that mortality, the catch limit on hatchery fish also has to be reduced.
The result: more hatchery fish leftover after the fishery to compete and interbreed with wild fish.
Using fishing gear that can selectively remove hatchery fish would allow commercial boats to catch more fish, while also helping recover wild salmon stocks on the Columbia River by reducing hatchery interactions with wild fish, North said.
So, is this the future of commercial fishing on the Columbia? We’ll check back and see what this year’s tests show.